The Closed Door and Other Stories

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I was reluctant to finish reading this book of short stories by Dorothy Whipple, because that leaves me Whipple-less for the moment, a state that I fear in this post-election darkness since it means I lose one method of escaping. Her stories are as great as the longer novels.

  • The Closed Door – The longest story, parents who don’t want a child and then deal with their daughter by restricting everything she can do, pulling her away from her adventurous friend Lucy, forbidding her marriage to Jimmy. She marries an old doctor just to escape the house, but when her father dies, the doctor insists that her mother come live with them and she turns everything gloomy again. “Until she was within a few days of her fortieth birthday, Stella remained in bondage to her mother. Then Alice, in her turn, died and Stella was free at last. But it was too late, she told herself.” Lucy comes back to rescue her at the end.
  • The Rose – Widowed husband marries a woman who henpecks him, finds fault with everything he does, discovers he has a rose under his hat and is suspicious that he’s having an affair with his secretary, only to be dashed to find that he puts the rose on his wife’s grave. “I’d rather it had been the typist. You can’t fight—that.”
  • Youth – Spinster aunt takes her niece into London, lets her do whatever she wants in the afternoon, which is to go to the dances. When a man asks her to dance, her aunt refuses to let her, but then the niece walks across the room and asks him to dance.
  • The Handbag – Old woman is gradually eased out of her husband’s life, discovers a package sent from a hotel containing the handbag of his lover sent back to “Mrs. West” because they registered under that name. She goes to an event they’re both at and draws the handbag out onto the table, causing the woman to rush from the podium and her husband after her. Mrs. West remains and is pleased to hand out prizes in their absence.
  • Family Crisis – Another story about a daughter worked like a slave without wages, she escapes and runs away with a married traveling salesman who actually won’t leave his wife. The parents find her, bring her home. Interesting detail of the proper neighbor, Miss Martin, who they catch stealing their tomatoes.
  • After Tea – Yet another story of a beleaguered daughter. Christine is worked to the bone, fetching things like a servant but unpaid. She’s refused permission to take nights off to attend French lectures. Her parents say they have something to tell her, after tea. “Mr and Mrs Berry always fixed the time for everything. They arranged life in time-tables. Perhaps because nothing of importance happened to them, they liked to make unimportant things important. By fixing a walk, say, for three-thirty, the walk and the hour were made significant. One could look forward to 3:30, refer frequently to 3:30, get ready for 3:30, announce that it was just 3:30 and with satisfaction set off.” After tea, they tell her she’s adopted, and she’s delighted, just packs up and leaves.
  • Wednesday – Sad story of a mother who’s lost custody of her children after an ill-advised 3 day affair for which her husband hired a detective and divorced her. He’d been waiting for the opportunity, was able to ditch an aging wife and get a younger model. The kids were devastated at first, but now used to the monthly visits and unkind to their mother, demanding treats and food and toys. “It was perhaps as well that she was not allowed to see the children oftener; she couldn’t afford to.”
  • Summer Holiday – the children’s nanny accompanies them to the seashore but allows a strange man to come to her room. The kids spill the beans to her boyfriend when they get back home, and she’s banished.
  • Saturday Afternoon – Husband who usually spends Saturday afternoons out is reluctant to leave, but wife and daughter push him out so they could have the day to themselves as usual. A police inspector comes by later to talk to him, the women find that he’s kept a lover in town for 15 years and broke up with her recently, and she killed herself.
  • Cover – Man marries the girl who jilted him for an American and had a baby with him but the American died and so did the baby. He “saves” her reputation by marrying her, but lets everyone know it. She’s mortified by the gossip, and later when they move to town and her husband starts carrying on with one of her friends, thinks it’s her fault when her friend is no longer allowed to come over. “I suppose she’s heard about me,” she said. The husband gripped the newspaper tightly, looking sideways at her, then relaxed. “Yes, I suppose that’s it.”

Bruce Conner: It’s All True

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I think BC would get a kick out of how unwieldy this book is, the oversize catalog to the massive retrospective that’s on right now at SFMOMA. There’s a lot of great stuff in this book, an entire set of images of what’s on display in case you can’t make it (sadly, only stills from the films). After reading this, I’m left with two thoughts: wow he was prolific, and I’d like to know more about the elusive Jean Conner, wife of many years who helped support him in this odyssey. She’s present throughout the book, quoted from various interviews throughout the years. I think she still lives on in the Glen Park neighborhood, polishing all those brass handles that Bruce put up in his last years to help him get around the house. Time to head back to the museum for another few hours going through the films and rest of the show.

The Tale of a Very Little Tortoise

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It is truly Dorothy Whipple/Shirley Jackson month around here. I’m reaching the end of the available Whipple books I can find, so ordered up this children’s book which contains a delightful story about a tiny turtle rescued by a kind Person after running away from a family that didn’t take care of it well. Little, as it’s called, injures its toes when trying to dig into the ground for winter to hibernate, but Person comes to the rescue and provides a box of hay for sleep. When spring comes around, Big Tortoise also shows up, and Little attempts to make friends. Big gets Little to try eating a strawberry and even though it’s delicious, Little insists that Big finish it off. Big wanders outside of the garden for a few days and Little goes to rescue it; later they’re both rescued when a neighbor discovers them.

Life Among the Savages

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A humorous glimpse at home life with four children, a few cats, a dog, and a husband. Jackson took material from short stories she published elsewhere (e.g. Charles, Third Child is always Easiest, etc.) and wove it into a longer work along with new bits. Having just read the other stories, it was a bit jarring to come across them again. So this is skipable if you’re familiar with her other short stories.

Avoid Books by P.G. Wodehouse

Also in the Baffler article about good books for dark times came a recommendation by Chris Lehmann to read “anything at all” by P.G. Wodehouse. I hadn’t, so I spent a few minutes marveling at the multiple shelves of books he took up at the main library, then selected a few that looked tolerable. After a handful of pages of both volumes, I’d had my fill—Wodehouse hates women and isn’t ashamed to keep that as an undercurrent to his work. He’s got one woman choking on an insect to explain why she was quiet for a few minutes while the men talked, and the aunt character is a caricature of what an overbearing relative would be. Otherwise, it’s all chaps and brandy and drinks at the club and hijinx and chats with his butler Jeeves. It is jaw-droppingly amazing that people find anything of value in his books and that they are kept in such huge circulation numbers still.

Conversations Before the End of Time

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This time capsule from 1995 of Suzi Gablik’s interviews with people about whether art matters/what is art for during the apocalypse that we were surely witnessing 20+ years ago seems more prescient today as we edge closer to the end times. I got a handful of ideas for reading material from this, but otherwise it was pretty average. I enjoyed the interview with the representatives from Guerilla Girls, and I did like the format she used, where she laid out the interviews chronologically so that she would reference the opinions of interviewees that had come before and get reactions to those.

The second interview was with Rachel Dutton and Rob Olds, sculptors in LA who gave up art to homestead in New Mexico and then sent a letter stating that they were giving up everything, selling their land and studio to get the money to take a series of courses by Tom Brown about wilderness survival skills. They gave away or destroyed all of their art and cancelled all upcoming shows. Gablik mentions that she interviewed them on July 20, 1992 but then  never heard from them again. Curious, I scanned the interwebs and sadly found their website, they surfaced from their survival journey and had joined the woo-woo culture of extreme spirituality. Including a snapshot of their website for when it goes down eventually. Rachel passed away in 2014 but Rob marches on. They sound 100% bonkers in this interview with Gablik, singing the praises of this Tom Brown guy who used to “stalk in New York City,” yikes. “He would hide in the crevices, the little corners of buildings in the city, and he watched homeless people. He watched people going to work. He watched everybody… Of course, that’s one of hte skills that you are taught at the school—stalking.”

In another interview, she dives more deeply into technology with Theodore Roszak, waves of technological enthusiasm that wanes, and he expects the same thing with the current (1993 interview) computer craze. “Now it’s ‘high tech’: with a computer linked to your television and your telephone, you’ll have heaven on earth. And I’m sure there are people who are willing to try that out. But I’ll make a prediction that in another generation, this will look like a bunch of defunct old equipment. Nothing will work the way it was advertised, and at some point, people will be turned off by it… It may be that after a certain number of these waves of enthusiasms have passed and left disappointment behind, people will finally get the point, that technology is never going to be what Francis Bacon thought it would be: the secret of immortality and salvation.”

Her interview with Carol Becker is great, Becker raising the point that American society is fundamentally anti-intellectual and always has been. She compares our setup to that of Spain where the newspaper would quote artists and poets asking them what they thought about the Gulf War. “The populist image in America seems to mean the lowest common denominator, as if the American public could only handle the simplest, most banal and one-dimensional kinds of statements, or films or books.” Later in this interview, they get on the subject of the computer, “a very nonmaterial nonphysically based form in which things happen electronically, not on the physical plane… we’re moving out of the physical plane as a species. I don’t know if it’s good or bad.” Gablik responds that this scares the shit out of her. Becker goes on, “I don’t think anybody’s really written enough about what this individual absorption with terminals and machines means—you know, people’s obsession with their computers and InterNet and E-mail and all these things.” (caps as written out by Gablik in 1993). “We’re moving so fast we don’t even have time to reflect on where we’re going.” Gablik responds that she’s chosen NOT to go to the digital world, “my instincts tell me not only that this is a direction in which I, personally, don’t want to go, but also that it’s a dubious direction for the whole human race.”

***

Discovered via the Baffler article on good books for dark times.

Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings

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More excellent previously unpublished or collected writings by Shirley Jackson. Hundreds of pages of delightful short stories, essays, and —what I found most useful—lectures about the craft of writing.

All the time that I am making beds and doing dishes and driving to town for dancing shoes, I am telling myself stories. Stories about anything, anything at all. Just stories. After all, who can vacuum a room and concentrate on it? I tell myself stories…They keep me working, my stories.

I cannot find any patience for those people who believe that you start writing when you sit down at your desk and pick up your pen and finish writing when you put down your pen again; a writer is always writing, seeing everything through a thin mist of words, fitting swift little descriptions to everything she sees, always noticing. Just as I believe that a painter cannot sit down to her morning coffee without noticing what color it is, so a writer cannot see an odd little gesture without putting a verbal description to it, and ought never to let a moment go by undescribed.

(From Memory and Delusion: A Lecture)

Fitting in lockstep with the approach I’m learning from Method Writing, Shirley Jackson hit on this idea decades before Jack Grape did:

I am actually going to talk about what I call images, or symbols. It seems to me that in our present great drive—fiction-wise—toward the spare, clean, direct kind of story, we are somehow leaving behind the most useful tools of the writer, the small devices that separate fiction from reporting, the work on the imagination from the everyday account. OF these the far most important, and the most neglected, is the use of symbols; I am using the word loosely, because it has altogether different meanings elsewhere, and yet I hardly know what other word to use. The thing I am talking about is best identified by reference to a theory of acting that has always seemed to me very profound, and certainly useful to the writer: Before entering upon a role, the actor, having of course familiarized himself with the character he is to portray, constructs for himself a set of images, or mental pictures, of small, unimportant things he feels belong around the character.

There must be at least one basic image, or set of images, for each character in a story, a fundamental symbol the writer keeps always in mind; as these images grow the character grows, and the accumulation of material and information about the image slowly makes up the character in the story. Various things belong to a character—a manner of speaking, a manner of moving, a particular emphasis, a group fo small physical things—and each of these must take on, like a perfume, the essence of the character they belong to. Just as a tune or a scent can evoke for most of us an entire scene, so the basic image of the character must evoke that entire character and his place in the story. As a result of this, of course, the characters themselves grow apart in the writer’s mind, become entirely separate people, and by the end of a book or a story the writer can no more mistake one for another than he can mistake a can of beans for a pearl necklace.

Suppose a story needs a male character. In the story he must further the action, although he is really a minor character. If the story requires no very definite attributes from him, suppose the writer were to assign, arbitrarily, the image of a bird to this character. He need never be named or called a bird, but his gestures and his habits are birdlike, his voice and his very words are sharp and twittering, and in his brief appearance he might select nuts or pieces of popcorn, and pick them up like seeds from the ground, with a quick darting movement. Even if this character never appears again, he has been alive for the space of a page, perhaps, and has added depth and imagination to the story…

Within these strict limits the writer must operate as vividly as she can, drawing as much as possible upon a sympathy with the reader, hoping that a single word will be enough to turn the reader inward, remind her, perhaps, of a similar emotion of her own, to bring her along willingly down the path of the story. Many experience in life are common to all of us, and a word or two is frequently enough to enrich a story with a wealth of recollection; take, for instance, the words “income tax.”

(From Garlic in Fiction: A Lecture)

Other Stories and Sketches

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Rounding out the book of Jackson’s novels and stories is a group of previously uncollected or unpublished stories. Of most interest to me:

  • Janice – girl who tries to kill herself in the car in the garage and drolly tells everyone about it “darn near killed myself this afternoon.”
  • A Cauliflower in Her Hair – a friend of his daughter comes over to do algebra and the father flirts with her, gives her a cigarette
  • It Isn’t the Money I Mind – a man in park pulls out various clippings from his wallet and pretends he knows the celebrities
  • The Third Baby’s the Easiest – childbirth story with that great line about being asked occupation by the hospital at check-in and saying “Writer,” but the clerk saying she’ll just put down “Housewife.”
  • The Summer People – really great story about a couple who decide to stay in their vacation cabin at the lake past Labor Day for the first time, only to be met with hostility from the locals: no kerosene or groceries delivered, telephone wires cut, mail service disrupted, car sabotaged.
  • Louisa, Please Come Home – a girl runs away from home successfully and builds another life for herself. She succeeds in altering her personality and appearance so greatly that when an old friend drags her back home, her parents and sister reject her as a stranger pretending. “My mother still talks to me on the radio, once a year, on the anniversary of the day I ran away.”
  • The Possibility of Evil- an old lady writes anonymous nasty notes to her neighbors and then gets one herself
  • Honeymoon of Mrs. Smith – a woman finds herself gossiped about immediately after her marriage, the townspeople want to warn her that her husband might be the killer who gets his wives to sign over their wills to him and then kills them in the bathtub.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

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Another creepy delight from Ms. Jackson… the remains of a family ostracized by a small town even after the daughter (Constance) was acquitted of poisoning her family with arsenic in the sugar bowl that her mother, father, uncle, aunt, and brother dipped into for toppings on their blackberries. The other sister, Mary Katherine/Merricat, survived by having been sent to her room without supper. Uncle Julian also survived the poisoning but has become wheelchair-bound and deranged. A cousin arrives unexpectedly, Charles, and proceeds to make himself at home and counts the money greedily in the safe. Merricat wants him gone, ransacks his room (her father’s old room), and may or may not have been responsible for letting his pipe set a fire that consumed most of the house. While Charles runs for the fire department and asks for help moving the safe a thousand times, the sisters retreat to the woods and watch the villagers throw rocks in the windows of the home once the fire is out. It’s at this point, six years after the poisonings, that Merricat and Constance exchange words about it, where Merricat admits to doing it.

The Haunting of Hill House

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Shirley Jackson is a master story-teller and she makes it look so easy with this 1959 novel about a professor (Montague) studying paranormal activity who invites people to assist him in studying the phenomenon at Hill House. His way of finding assistants was to discover anyone still alive who’d had a brush with the abnormal, send them letters inviting them for the summer, and reply to their replies with detailed directions. Out of a dozen prospects, only two show up: Eleanor Vance and Theodora. Joining Montague is a member of the family who owns the house, Luke.

Luxuriate in how we first meet Eleanor:

Eleanor Vance was thirty-two years old when she came to Hill House. The only person in the world she genuinely hated, now that her mother was dead, was her sister. She disliked her brother-in-law and her five-year-old niece, and she had no friends… She could not remember ever being truly happy in her adult life; her years with her mother had been built up devotedly around small guilts and small reproaches, constant weariness, and unending despair.

The four of them arrive separately to Hill House, grapple with the gatekeeper and meet the formidable housekeeper who leaves before dark every day. It becomes creepier by the day and within a week, Eleanor is ushered out for her own safety, so she intentionally wrecks her car into a tree in the driveway before she’s past the gates. She’s the one who’s been adding to the haunting of the house, writing on walls and generally scaring people.

The Priory

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Another gem from Whipple. Despite the name, nothing religious in this one, except the fact that the ancient manor had some ruins from medieval times when pilgrims used to swing through on their way from Canterbury. She does a marvelous job with characters and descriptions, sucking you in from the beginning with a view of the individuals in the darkened manor, waiting for their father/brother to get home and turn on the lights because money was scarce. The two sisters, Christine and Penelope, are grown adults but linger in their nursery since they take pleasure in each other’s company more than that of their father and his sister, the formidable Aunt Victoria.

Their father, the Major, decides to remarry, someone needs to take the house in hand and help him ignore the bills that stack up in his desk drawer. The only thing he takes pleasure in is cricket, and he spends exorbitant sums fielding a match at his estate each summer. He marries Anthea, a neighboring old maid who he thinks will give him little trouble, which she does until unexpectedly getting pregnant and giving birth to twins. She welcomes Nurse Pye into the fold, a soon to be bosom friend who seems to be the only one to help her with the babies. Christine marries the handsome Nicholas and quickly has a baby before she discovers one of his infidelities after the woman mails her a copy of the hotel bill. Penelope marries a man that she met at her father’s wedding, a rich fat man who adores her and frees her from life at Saunby. Aunt Victoria is packed off to the village inn once she’s asked by Anthea to contribute money to the household expenses; she continues to paint on the grounds of the estate and is quite happy.

Christine leaves Nicholas and his rich father, takes Angela, the baby, to Saunby, only to find that Anthea asks her to leave soon. Nicholas and his father arrive to demand that she return to him, and she refuses, saying it would be like being forced to eat something that had just made her sick. She gets rescued by Penelope and installed in their house, but finds that she must get a job and she’s uneducated and unqualified for work. She gets a job in a salon in London as a receptionist and lives in a boarding house during the week while Angela is coo’ed over by Penelope, who shocks Christine by saying she wants to adopt her. Furious, Christine refuses, but then must let Angela go for a month vacation to Cornwall while she works for £2 a week in London, not enough to cover her expenses plus train fare for the weekend trips to see her daughter (so she pawns things). Coming back from the Cornwall trip, Angela gets pneumonia and nearly dies, shaking Christine to her senses and enabling her to reach out to Nicolas’s parents for help. Nicholas, too, has left, trying to find a job and make something of himself. He returns as the country is on the threshold of war, and his father comes up with a plan to save Saunby (it’s for sale) by buying it, installing tenants who will help work the land and create industry, keeping Christine’s father in one part, plus Christine/Nicholas/Angela, plus the father and mother.

Happily ever after and all that. From penniless gentry chaos, weddings, learning to earn your own living (lots of emphasis on how her daughter would be educated and learn to make her way in the world), to saving the old manor.

The Book of the City of Ladies

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Christine de Pizan’s masterpiece, translated into English in a very readable manner by Rosalind Brown-Grant. First, some biographical details about Christine de Pizan–born in Venice in 1364, she was widowed at an early age while living in France. She began writing in 1399 about the role of women in society. She went into a convent in 1418 to escape civil war, dying in 1430.

So the text is over 600 years old. That took awhile to sink into my thick head. But it’s one of the earliest defenses of women against the usual trumped up charges of frailty, mental laxity, cowardice, unimaginativeness, loose morals. A lot of this book is a direct shot at Roman de la Rose, a 13th century poem sure to delight any garden variety misogynist.

The narrator is visited by an apparition of three ladies- Reason, Rectitude, and Justice- who ask her to build a city of ladies to bolster women’s opinion of themselves and to fight against the lies being spread by the patriarchy. It’s early enlightenment; take this example of dialogue between the narrator and Reason:

‘Do you know why it is that women know less than men?’

‘No, my lady, you’ll have to enlighten me.’

‘It’s because they are less exposed to a wide variety of experiences since they have to stay at home all day to look after the household. There’s nothing like a whole range of different experiences and activities for expanding the mind of any rational creature.’

De Pizan strengthens her story by laying out, brick by brick, the history and myth and stories of all the intelligent, capable, loyal, brave, strong women that we’ve otherwise forgotten… like Nicostrata, creator of the Latin alphabet (A,B,C). The usual suspects (Sappho, Judith, Ruth, Zenobia, etc.) are all here, along with boatloads of women I’d never heard of. I can’t find a complete list of everyone mentioned, and am too lazy to create this.

Fantastic resource. Wish I’d been given a copy of this to study and learn from as a kid.

 

Seven Ages of Paris

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Battling post-election nausea, I went looking for clues to democracy from the many revolutions in France. This is a pretty terrible book, but I knew I was asking for trouble trying to read a condensed piece about French history. Grossly oversimplified book, he passes off surface tidbits that you are loathe to knit together into a cohesive whole. For example, the 1871 Commune of Paris fizzled out, et voila here comes Impressionist art to the rescue out of the ashes. I fail to see a real connection between the two, but the author takes long strides as he skims. Despite the flaws, there are parts I can take away as warning shots across our current bow, like the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 which had granted Protestants the right to worship as they chose in otherwise Catholic France. This pushes illustrious citizens out of the country, to England, Denmark, Berlin. “By 1700 between a third and half of the population of Berlin was reckoned to be refugees from Louis’s misguided religious strategy. This strategy also hardened Protestant opinion against him abroad: the League of Augsburg, united as it did France’s enemies against her, was but one of the laden consequences.” Ahem.

Besides this, I scribbled some notes to myself to get a basic timeline of events I’m most interested in:

1648 – Fronde de Parlement
1789 – Paris Commune (later known as the Commune of the French Revolution when the more famous 1871 Paris Commune hit the scene)
Jacobins
1st Republic1793 – Louis XVI & Marie Antoinette guillotined
1793-1794 – The Terror (ended when Robespierre guillotined)
1799 – Coup of 18 Brumaire (<– new month names arrived with 1st Republic) overthrows The Directory, Napoleon made 1st Consul
1803 – Louisiana Purchase
1804 – Napoleon declares himself emperor
1st Empire
1814 – Napoleon abdicates, goes to Elba
1815 – Napoleon resumes control, then Waterloo, then abdicates again
1830 – July Revolution
1848 – Revolution everywhere in Europe except England; Louis Phillipe flees, the last King of France ends a thousand year old French monarchy
2nd Republic
1851 – Louis Napoleon (nephew of Nap I) elected president then takes over Paris
2nd Empire
1852 – Louis Napoleon/Nap III declares himself emperor; Baron Haussmann on the scene
1870 – defeat of French army by Bismarck & the Prussians
3rd Republic
Siege of Paris
Peace terms give up Alsace & Lorraine (foreshadowing!)
1871 – Commune set up in Paris directly challenges Versailles army; demonstrations start, another siege of Paris; revolution fizzles out

 

 

They Were Sisters

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I’ve come to the end of my stack of Dorothy Whipple novels for the moment, with a few more winging their way towards me. Perhaps due to overexposure, I wasn’t as enamored with this one. A tale of sisters driven to various conflicting ends: Lucy, the oldest, helped raise Vera (the youngest, most beautiful) and Charlotte, seeing them make disastrous marriages before settling into a very happy one herself with William. Lucy continues to try and save her sisters and then her sisters’ daughters: Sarah and Judith. Charlotte drinks herself into a coma and dies, Judith escapes to Aunt Vera’s house but unfortunately falls in love with Vera’s lover, Terry. Confronted by Vera, Judith flees with Sarah to Lucy’s shelter. The descriptions of the horrors endured by Charlotte and her children at the capricious hands of her husband were vivid–practical jokes, plus killing their dog, whimsical fake heart attacks, etc.

They Knew Mr. Knight

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My Dorothy Whipple addiction continues apace, finishing two of her books within the last few hours. This is a lovely well constructed tale of a family that rises to then falls from prosperity. Each character is fleshed out in splendid detail and Whipple is a marvel at creating images you can see in your mind. We first meet Thomas Blake waking up beside his wife Celia, vaguely worried that the engineering works he’s employed at are going to be sold. Celia luxuriates in bed, having a rare half hour to herself before she has to return to being a wife and mother of Freda, Ruth, and Douglas. The children’s character is varied; Freda is frivolous and cares about outfits and wealth; Ruth is curious and daring and lighthearted and wants to become a writer; Douglas is being groomed to take over his father’s company but secretly wants to be a scientist, not an engineer. There’s a gossipy neighbor next door, Mrs. Greene, who thrills to witness their eventual destruction when Thomas cooks the books to save his plant, ending up in jail for a year. Celia has a bit of “God” nonsense throughout, crises of faith and whatnot, although when it returns at the end it seems more like Spirit than religion. Solid fiction plotted along a well-worn path of rise and fall with happy ending.